WELLESLEY — Fire officials from across Massachusetts descended Tuesday on a meeting of a board that administers the state building code to assail a proposed policy document that they see as an effort to roll back requirements for fire alarm and sprinkler systems in some residential buildings.
About 40 fire officials attended a meeting of the Board of Building Regulations and Standards at the National Guard Armory to oppose the draft white paper, which examines the cost and effectiveness of fire alarm and sprinkler systems in residential buildings with three to six units.
“The fire service believes this is the opening to look at code change proposals that may not have sprinklers or alarms,” state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said in an interview.
Opponents said the paper singled out fire alarms and sprinklers as contributors to the high cost of housing in Massachusetts without providing evidence to support that conclusion or taking into account the ability of sprinklers to save lives.
“This paper is seriously flawed,” Coan said during his remarks to the board. “Why roll back a proven fire safety protection?”
He said there have been more than 30,000 fires in three- to six-family apartment buildings in Massachusetts between 2001 and 2013, causing about $320 million in property loss and resulting in 1,300 firefighter injuries, 700 civilian injuries, one firefighter death, and 108 civilian deaths.
The document was drafted to fulfill the board’s legal obligation to conduct ongoing examinations of the state building code's impact on construction costs as well as the effectiveness of the code in the areas of health, safety, energy conservation, and security.
The white paper says Massachusetts has more fire protection requirements than any other New England state and mandated sprinklers for many residential and commercial buildings in 1997 before national building codes did.
The document said it costs about $27,450 to install a sprinkler and fire alarm system throughout a three-unit residential building.
Board member Alexander MacLeod said those costs need to be addressed.
“I know sprinklers can save lives,” he said, “but I’d like to know what the cost is.”
The paper’s recommendations do not explicitly call for changes to requirements for sprinklers and fire alarms, but the specter of such a proposal dominated the conversation.
“This paper represents, in the opinion of firefighters and fire officers and fire chiefs, a shift in public policy,” said Acushnet Fire Chief Kevin Gallagher, a board member .
Fire officials also questioned whether the paper applies to existing units or new ones because the document uses the term “new construction” in one of its recommendations.
Board member Robert Anderson said the paper pertains to existing residences.
“This is only looking at renovated three- to six-family homes — whether or not there is another way to achieve life safety in those units without having to install sprinkler systems,” he said.
The document concludes the state needs more affordable housing and a building code with “fewer and clear” requirements would help lower costs.
It recommends the board propose new codes that would provide more affordable options for building multifamily homes, but those codes must offer safety features that are “enhanced or equivalent” to what the current code provides.
The Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition, which opposes the paper, cited a Back Bay fire in March that killed two Boston firefighters and an apartment building blaze in Lowell that killed seven people in July. Neither building was equipped with sprinklers because they were both built before sprinkler requirements were implemented, the coalition said in a statement.
During a tense exchange, the building code board’s chairman, Brian Gale, asked board member Gallagher if it was possible the owner of the Lowell building didn’t make improvements to the residence because of sprinkler costs.
“I believe it is possible,” said Gale, answering his own question. “If that’s the case, is it possible that that building never got any renovation or any work done on it because of the sprinkler regulation?”
He went on to ask whether the building owner would have made other life-saving safety improvements to the building if he didn’t have to bear the cost of installing sprinklers.
“I think that there’s a possibility here that the code may be costing people lives the way it’s written,” Gale said.
The comment drew jeers from fire officials, including one who yelled, “Shameless!”
The board decided to send the document out for edits from the its committees on fire prevention and fire protection and existing building codes, as well as the state Department of Housing and Community Development and Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
Coan, the state fire marshal, said he was pleased with the board’s decision to seek input from agencies and boards that specialize in housing, economics, and public safety.
“You absolutely do not reduce or eliminate fire protection in these buildings, whether they be existing buildings or new buildings,” he said.
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.